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Thoroughfare: Commuting by river, rail and highway

February 26, 2014

The first commuter in the Lower Mainland was William Henry Bevis, also the first civil servant here, appointed in June 1858 by Governor Douglas as revenue collector and postmaster at Langley.  For some weeks after  the Revenue Station was established at Queenborough in May 1859, Bevis left his wife in the house at Langley and rowed 16 miles on Fraser River to his new workplace.  Growing weary of this trip  – which at best took two and a half hours – Bevis built a house nearby the Station.

Sam Herring, who established a farm opposite the city in 1860,  used to deliver milk daily to customers in New Westminster.

But it was the advent of the public ferry K de K in 1884 that opened up the possibility of living on this side of the river and working on the other.

In the 1890’s tailors Alexander McRae and William McRae resided at South Westminster with family, and commuted daily to business the city.

Many came from farther afield, though only once a week. Mrs Thomas Black, who lived in Langley, told of leaving home before dawn to carry produce on foot to the weekly market at New Westminster, a trip that could take five hours.

However it was rather a surprise to learn that it was possible to commute from downtown Vancouver to South Surrey in the year 1900 in order to get to work.  Such a trip would involve street-cars, a ferry ride, and a journey by train.

East Kensington School teacher Phoebe McInnes did not do this on a regular basis, but she records such trips as nothing out of the ordinary.   See Phoebe McInnes (1878-1938) –  K. Jane Watt

Living on a section of 32 Ave called McInnes Road at Latimer Road  (SW 1/4 Sec. 27, Tp.7, Surrey) she commuted by horse and wagon or bicycle to Langley Prairie to visit friends and family, and  for shopping even going Stateside, to Blaine, Washington.   Every few weeks or so,  when the school was over on a Friday afternoon, she waited for the Great Northern Railway train at the nearby Royal City Spur – at the logging camp near Hazelmere —  and rode to the ferry landing at Brownsville.  After a short ride on the steamer Surrey to New Westminster she could catch a street car to Vancouver to spend the weekend.

She describes such a journey on an Easter long-weekend.

April 9, 1900.
“Went to town [Vancouver] Friday and came back today (Tuesday). Neil drove me down to the station on Good Friday and we waited two hours for the train. At last when it did come along it went away past the Spur, and I had to walk up.The old conductor Mr Copeland was very nice as usual, talked to me nearly all the way there carried my valise to the ferry, took me into the engine room & secured a seat for me on the express wagon. Oh he’s lovely.”

After waiting for the train two hours, the trip to Brownsville would be relatively short, one hour.  The ferry Surrey took less than 10 minutes to cross the river, but allowing for a wait and time to get to the street car on the other side, that could take another half an hour. Then perhaps up to an hour to get downtown – a route that is closely followed by the Skytrain of recent times.   So it was possible the entire journey took just two and a half hours.

From her diary entry of March 11, 1901, she records staying on in Vancouver until Monday morning and still getting to work on time.

“Came home Monday (this morning) via G.N.R. Met Mary Corbett on the train going in. Mr Sharp (Rev) called for a few minutes at recess.”

1893 ferry Surrey scheduleThe ferry Surrey made its first morning trip from the New Westminster side at 6:30 am.  No doubt the street cars were running earlier.

However, the only train schedule we have at hand is from 1894, indicating a first train from South Westminster at 9 am, arriving at Royal City Spur at 10:30.

1894 GN railway timetable Liverpool - SeattleIt could be that school started late in the morning.   That might be the case, to allow time for chores and a walk of some miles, something that they might not like to do in the darkness of winter mornings.

Or perhaps the trains were running earlier in 1900.

Still it was not a bad commute, from Cordova Street to East Kensington, in under three hours.





When the Fraser River bridge was opened in 1904, the commuting time was improved considerably, and was further shortened when service on the Fraser Valley branch of the BC Electric Railway was inaugurated in 1910.

The map below, dating from 1912, indicates commuter rail lines to Vancouver in red.  It is on a rather out-dated road map,  but has the advantage of showing the township sections.

The Royal City Spur on the New Westminster Southern Railway (owned by GNR) was just north of Hazelmere, which is located at the eastward “bump” in the road, down near the south end. Count two sections up and one to the right and there was  the homestead of Phoebe’s father, Fergus McInnes,  in Section 27.

A Map of the New Westminster Southern Railway was included on an earlier post.

1912 Vancouver commuter rail map -Arch. Moir Co

Over the years, some places in the lower mainland have drawn closer, and further apart, as commuting time contracted and expanded again.

When paving of the Pacific Highway was completed in 1923 a single ribbon of concrete led without interruption from Brownsville to the border.

The next map shows the Surrey and Langley bus routes of the Pacific Stage Lines in 1945, at a time when the BC Rail service was still in operation, and when the main highways had been fully established, pre-freeway era.  A current transit map is displayed for comparison.

1945 PSL bus routes  - Dominion Map Co2014 Translink map Surrey












In  the 1940’s long weekend traffic returning to the city on a Sunday night would back up from the Patullo Bridge to Fry’s Corner (176 St).

After the  401 freeway opened in the sixties, the Fraser Highway, the  former Yale Road which in its heyday was the main road both to the interior and the States, went into a benign state of traffic decline and roadside businesses died off.   It took about 20 years for this situation to reverse itself and with increasing commercial development the utility of that highway for commuter traffic has been diminished.

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